The Proof is on the Walls: Johannesburg’s Artist Proof Studio Celebrates 21 Years

After the Fire (detail) . Mixed media installation. 2012.


Celebrating a heritage of community engagement, Johannesburg’s Artist Proof Studio (APS) has assembled the retrospective exhibition “Coming of Age: 21 Years of Artist Proof Studio” [on view through July 6] at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. APS is a hybrid organization: a training center for young artists, an atelier renowned for the masterly quality of its output, and a gallery. During his remarks at the May 6 opening of “Coming of Age,” William Kentridge, a participant in the exhibition, reflected, “In an imperfect world there is a moment of utopian civic goodness in the way a good print studio can work, an openness of conversation, collaboration and working together.”

Co-founder and Executive Director Kim Berman recalls APS’s creation amid the euphoria of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the anticipated dismantling of apartheid. “It was that ‘Madiba [Mandela] Magic,’ the Rainbow Nation,” she says. After working and studying in Boston for seven years, “I was coming back to a South Africa trying to reinvent itself, and the energy was amazing, people working together and believing in a different future.”

Berman paired up with artist Nhlanhla Xaba; together they launched APS in 1991. Modeled after what she learned through interning at Artist’s Proof Boston—a cooperative printmaking studio established in 1987 and now operating as Mixit Print Studio in Somerville, Mass.—Berman took that project’s collaborative ethos and combined it with the spirit of Ubuntu, an African philosophy of mutual interdependence and respect. Xaba provided connections to local artists whose combined output, although the most of the individuals are not well known, represents a substantial printmaking legacy. Many of these artists trained at Rorke’s Drift Art and Craft Centre in a rural corner of what is now northern KwaZulu Natal Province. Founded by Swedish Lutherans in 1962, it was one of the few sites where black Africans could receive training in the arts at the time, with an emphasis on printmaking, ceramics and textiles. Berman remarks of that early period, “It was full of color, it was much more expressive, it wasn’t as tightly controlled in terms of the professional protocol of the printmaker, it was just anything goes.”

“Coming of Age” takes up virtually the entire Johannesburg Art Gallery, sprawling over 18 galleries. Each section reflects a different topic-the history of APS, the different artistic routes that its participants have taken to get there, community and social activism, the involvement of professional artists-thereby highlighting a nonhierarchical mode of curatorial procedures. Coordinating so many people and installing an enormous array of prints, books and mixed-media assemblages was challenging, but as JAG chief curator Antoinette Murdoch notes, it was far from a clash of inflated artistic egos; rather, “It’s a bunch of humble people,” working in a medium that’s democratic by nature.

Some of the highlights of the exhibition include the The Tree (linocut, 2004), in which seemingly weightless human bodies float upwards from beneath the earth, progressively coalescing and solidifying into the trunk and far-reaching branches of a tree, forming a splendid visualization of Ubuntu through the participants’ self-portraitsl. Co-founder Xaba’s Children of Asazi III (linocut, 2001) depicts people who go about their contemporary lives firmly grounded upon an ancestral foundation, represented by African headrests, masks and grave markers. Brett Murray-whose painting The Spear, showing President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed, recently sparked a vigorous nationwide debate-offers an undated and untitled cartoonish linocut, a prologue to his now infamous image. Here Murray also exhibits his contrarian attitude: a white man dressed for an adventure in the bush is about to plead his case before an archaically caricatured African cannibal chief. The native man remarks, “If another white artist brings me a portfolio of guilt, crises of identity, and memory . . . I’m going to throw up.”  

“Coming of Age” recapitulates the history of Artist Proof Studio and demonstrates the incredible range of activities it supports. APS straddles the worlds of arts education, community-based projects, and fine art. It trains students in a three-year program, attracting aspirant artists who are long on talent but short on formal education or money. APS has launched the careers of some notable South African artists, including Nicholas Hlobo (represented by Langa Kola, a work from 1998 presenting an Ndebele woman in her village) and Mbongeni Buthelezi (whose 1994 etching Mine Disaster Until When? foregrounds three eerie subterranean creatures). In both instances we receive rare glimpses into early work that contrasts sharply with these artists’ mature styles.

APS has also produced scores of educators, activist-artist-citizens who participate in extensive community outreach. HIV/AIDS has affected APS as much as it has every segment of South African society. The studio has responded with the Paper Prayers Projects, a variety of skills-development initiatives that enable women to create marketable products, many of them imbued with an AIDS education message.

After the national government pulled the plug on a training program that accounted for approximately 70% of its budget in 2009, APS survived by expanding its professional output through the Pro-Shop, where artists work with a team of master printers. The participation of William Kentridge has been key: APS co-publishes with him and has remained in the black by splitting the income from sales of the editions. His Colour Chart I is a stylistic departure for this artist: his abstract ink washes have been painstakingly carved into printing blocks, the result seeming to deny the “litho-ness” of lithography.

“Coming of Age” contains numerous prints from the early days, including work from portfolios that gut-wrenchingly capture milestones in the anti-apartheid struggle, such as the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 and the Soweto Uprising of 1976. The various prints from 2001 depict mobs protesting; people being forced to carry the much-despised passbooks required for non-whites in apartheid-era South Africa; chaotic scenes stemming from the police firing into a peaceful, unarmed crowd; and an elegiac scene of shoes scattered over a desolate landscape, created by Kim Berman herself.

The show also features bold abstractions such as Avhashoni Mainganye’s Aphrodite Africano (linocut, 2003-04). The artist’s fluid black lines arch throughout the drawing, delineating finely patterned patches of subdued colors; the overall rhythm of the image hints at the curvature of woman’s body, or the gentle sway of her gait.


 Emandulo [Zulu for “in the beginning,” referring to the creation myth),  a delightful collaborative book project from 1997 conceived by visiting artist Robbin Ami Silverberg of Brooklyn, demonstrates APS’s ongoing interest in the transnational exchange of ideas and techniques. Silverberg asked 19 South African artists, a Ghanaian, and a Hungarian to draw a male/female couple. The images were all printed within one week and subsequently bound together and cut horizontally into three sections, making a flip book that dissolvws the administrative rigor of racial categories under apartheid.

And among the large-scale black-and-white prints (up to approximately 83 by 43 inches) produced in 2012 are Norman Catherine’s Untitled, a fever dream of a startled man trapped in his own bed by an immense, snarling creature, and Walter Oltmann’s Child, in which a delicate tracery uncannily cushions the austere presence of a skeleton.

A defining moment for Artist Proof Studio came tragically in 2003 when a fire destroyed its building and took the life of Nhlanla Xaba. A creative frenzy ensued, “We pulled burnt prints, we cranked them up, we collaged them, we printed over them, we prepared what we called ‘After the Fire Prints.'” The prints raised a considerable amount of money and, combined with fresh foundation grants, enabled APS to reopen a year later in a new building, fortified by a more defined business plan.

The “After the Fire” section of “Coming of Age,” co-curated by Stompie Selibe and Hayley Berman (Kim Berman’s sister, an art therapist), is the emotional center of the exhibition. Some of the life-size figurative prints are featured, a moving tribute to what was lost in the conflagration, also bearing testimony to the “new growth” that it generated. Exclusively for this show, Hayley Berman has also bundled and suspended stacks of burnt letters, photographs and ephemera in the middle of one of the galleries, a haunting tribute to times past and people now lost.

Each current APS participant was asked to create a new body of work for the show, According to Robyn Nesbitt, APS’s gallery manager, “It allows current students to see what they are now a part of, this giant family, this history, which I don’t think they were aware of before.”

A companion exhibition, “The Boston-Jo’burg Connection: Collaboration and Exchange at Artist Proof Studio, 1983-2012” is being presented at the Tufts University Gallery, Medford, Mass., through July 29.The show contains over 150 prints and with an emphasis on the international printmaking projects and collaborative portfolios.